A redesign of Realtor.com nearly six months in the making went live to the public today, offering improved search tools and a home valuation tool that pulls data on sold listings directly from multiple listing services.

The redesign of the Web’s most popular real estate portal — the official site of the National Association of Realtors — also includes listings that are "time stamped" for freshness and photos that are 140 percent larger than the old site.

Site operator Move Inc. claims Beta testing of Realtor.com’s new search tools demonstrates that visitors are viewing 40 percent more properties and clicking through 12 percent more often to see property details.

Marketing and Web site consultant Brian Boero said the redesign could help Realtor.com solidify its competitive advantage over other portals, which he said is a function of the completeness and freshness of the site’s property listings. The redesign will help get users through the listings and to listing details more quickly, he said.

But the improvements to the site are incremental rather than truly innovative, Boero said, and Realtor.com’s business model of selling advertisements in the form of featured listings to Realtors can sometimes still stand in the way of providing the best user experience.

"There’s not a lot of ‘wow’ with this release," said Boero, a partner at 1000Watt Consulting. "The new user interface is not dramatically different than anything else out there, and they are still saddled with intrusions of advertising and featured listings. It’s not something they can avoid, but I was hoping they could do it a little more gracefully."

Realtor.com president Errol Samuelson said that many of the changes made to the site may not be eye catching or flashy, but they go a long way to improving its functionality. Months of testing using techniques like tracking where a user’s eye goes when taking in a page might have resulted in subtle tweaks like where to put a button on the screen, he said.

Samuelson said the redesign makes it simpler for users to find properties that meet their needs  — an issue of no small importance when the number of listings on the site has ballooned from about 2.5 million in 2005 to 4.6 million today.

Searches can be conducted without checking boxes or making selections from pull-down menus. A user can get to a listing in just two clicks from the home page, and changes to search criteria can be made on the fly within the context of search results.

"In Web 1.0, if you got the search wrong, you had to go back to start, and reenter the criteria," Samuelson said. "We’ve made the site easier to explore and play."

The Beta testing of the redesigned site speaks for itself, Samuelson said.

"When you are talking about the biggest site on the Internet, getting a 40 percent increase.. in property views is a stunning increase in the consumer experience," Samuelson said. "Consumers seem to be voting with their mouse, and saying, ‘Hey, this is a big deal to me.’ "

While Realtor.com now serves up larger photos, Realtors must still pay extra to provide more than four with a listing, Boero noted.

"Photos are really critical to consumers — they want tons of them, and Realtor.com is putting a chokepoint on that relationship," Boero said, to illustrate ways the site’s business model can conflict with providing the best user experience.

Samuelson said that’s not an issue raised by users, and that about 420,000 agents are purchasing advertising from Realtor.com either directly or through their brokers, a number that’s grown from a year ago.

"If you take Realtors voting with their (ad purchases), and consumers with their attention, the new site seems to be working very well," Samuelson said.

Another subtle change implemented as part of the Web design is to wrap featured listings into an agent’s contact information, so it appears less like an advertisement, Samuelson said. "The savvy consumer has created a blind spot for anything that looks like a banner ad," he said.

Boero said Realtor.com’s valuation tool is "not only not new, but arguably not nearly as good as Zillow."

While Zillow and other valuation sites use formulas that incorporate public information on recent sales and market trends to produce a valuation estimate for a specific property, Realtor.com’s "What’s Your Home Worth" tool provides a wider range that’s based on sales in the last 18 months.

For example, querying Realtor.com about the value of a recently sold home in East Lansing, Mich., generated a list of six addresses and the estimated values of the nearest recently sold homes.

Instead of calculating an estimated valuation for the test property queried — a home that sold for $236,500 in May 2007 — Realtor.com simply informs the user that "houses in the area are valued between $98,000 and $240,000," reflecting the range of all the properties returned. The user can also generate a list based on most recent sales, rather than the closest recently sold homes.

By comparison, Zillow’s automated valuation, or "Zestimate," for the same house was $226,500, with a "value range" of between $201,585 and $278,595.

Realtor.com, however, does offer users the ability to request free, customized home-value reports from real estate professionals. The reports show trends including days on market, list price to sales price ratios, and scatter plots of recent sales including those that are too recent to have showed up in public records, Samuelson said.

Participating Realtors who prepare the reports can use the contact information of users who request them for prospecting. Samuelson said agents pay $1,000 to $3,000 a year, depending on the markets, to participate in the Featured CMA program. Agents chose one or more ZIP codes, and Realtor.com provides them with the inquiries that come from the site and tools to create the initial report. Regular updates can be sent automatically as requested by the prospect, minimizing the effort required to cultivate leads.

Other changes to the site include a "warmer color palette" for the home page, which centers around the "Find Homes" search box, and integration of neighborhood data for 55,000 communities.

Move claims that the site’s revamped search tools reduces the number of clicks users need to take as they search. Virtual video tours and photo galleries are easier to find and Move claims that compared to the old site, visitors are 45 percent more likely to download informational brochures and 10 percent more likely to click on a broker or agent’s Web site.

Users have more options to personalize the site, such as setting up e-mail alerts to stay current with new information and listings.

Move reports that second-quarter user registrations increased by 9 percent, and the number of consumers electing to receive e-mail alerts has doubled. More than 3.3 million e-mail alerts have been delivered since the site went into Beta testing in May, Move said.

Editor’s note: this story was updated after it was initially posted to include comments by Realtor.com president Errol Samuelson.


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